The Ahuman Spectator: Art, Activism, Anthropocene and Apocalypse

I am convinced that the contemporary 15 minutes of fame is 15 minutes of hate. 15 minutes of death threats. Even more ephemeral due to the incitement by keyboard warriors. In January 2020, I published The Ahuman Manifesto: Activism for the End of the Anthropocene (Bloomsbury). The manifesto culminated many ideas I had been working with (in partnership, as a magickal working, as activism) as a call to action for radical compassion compelled by art. It advocates everything from cannibalism and necrophilia (clearly cinematically inspired but nonetheless ethically interrogated) to the more mundane but ethical abolitionist veganism and antinatalism.

Strangely, it was this final, relatively benign activism – antinatalism – that led to daily death promises, hate mail, to my university being threatened as well as inundated with invites for me to appear on Fox News and Piers Morgan. Murdoch rags begged for interviews which I refused, so they just collaged bits and pieces where they could and published articles anyway. I was styled as a childless witch, advocating a satanic cult of postmodern human annihilation. The way I look was particularly alighted upon as ‘journalists’, and trolls unearthed photos of me in my various guises. I am, after all, an old school Melbourne goth, so my lack of shame was rather disobedient. I was even called a Reptilian by David Icke, for which I am utterly chuffed.

The Ahuman Manifesto asks for five things, which many activisms have been promoting for a long time, though perhaps not so mercilessly (for an advocate of radical compassion, I admit my compassion for many humans is imperceptible). These five things are:

Forsake human privilege;
Practice abolitionist veganism;
Cease reproduction of humans;
Develop experimental modes of expression beyond anthropocentric signifying systems of representation and recognition;
Care for this world at this time until we are gone.

When Adrian Martin asked me to write about this experience, I wondered about the relationship between reception, truth, and a clearly transparent manifesto. What made some humans so angry about the idea of the extinction of the human species, and with it the end of the anthropocene? And what has it to do with cinema?

Ahuman is the concept of being a human organism but utterly repudiating anthropocentric exceptionalism. Because humans are uniquely violent, parasitic, selfish, and will utilise any manner of social discourses to vindicate these traits. This is not a pessimistic claim. If you want to see what humans are at their most human, immerse yourself in the American film Earthlings (Shaun Monson, 2005). It is this immemorial, grand-scale use as abuse of the natural world and its inhabitants that led me to the conclusion (and I am most definitely not alone) that an end to the human species would be the most ethical and also easiest form of a full ecosophical expression of love. A human apocalypse, but slow, devolved, without genocide or eugenics, was advocated. A cessation of reproduction simultaneous with a care of the lives left, a thoughtful, local and global series of tactics for ecology to flourish as humans diminish – so not very cinematic, sadly, lacking the big bang of finality. I called for the apocalypse of the human at the opening of 2020.

2020 was also, of course, coincidentally, the year of the (currently ongoing) plague of COVID-19. As I write from central London, we are still within its grip, with some of the highest human death rates in the world. What has COVID taught us about the anthropocene? The hate mail (and some fan mail) has claimed my manifesto foretold or, better still, brought on the plague (in the days of QAnon, truly any claim is legitimate apparently). Cinema and literature have been the great comforter during lockdown for many of us. In the very strangest of turns from the allegorical to the literal, when read in 2020, Albert Camus’ 1947 The Plague transforms from a warning about the insipid creeping nature of dogma (expressly, fascism) to a literal description of a truly amoral natural phenomenon (while not bubonic, the later stages of the plague becoming multi-strain and cardio-brachial have their resonances with COVID). This means that Camus’ hopeful claim that men (sic) are essentially more good than bad is questionable. In its original, allegorical state, Camus’ plague divests men of accountability and, using the Nietzschean natural (plague) as a substitute for the uniquely anthropocentric (fascism), ‘relieves men of their political responsibility, and runs away from History and real political problems’, as Simone de Beauvoir makes clear (1963: p. 144). Camus may be more nuanced in his summation that men are less evil than apathetic, ‘asleep on their feet’ (p. 141). Humans have a talent for simultaneously being ignorant and exhibiting heinous hubris.

More apt perhaps is Mary Shelley’s harrowing plague novel of 1826, The Last Man. The increasing despair of the unreliable narrator (Lionel Verney) laments the value of a natural world devoid of a human perception to appreciate it; the further the final group of survivors struggle into sublime natural settings, the more exacerbated this anguish becomes, until the reader is delighted at the impending utter annihilation of the humans (at least, I was). The world, for Verney, exists for man. Without man, the world is redundant, life is for use, consumption, never for its own agential expressivity. Coupled with Verney’s peculiar rabid nationalism for England as the only civilised nation on Earth (as we read it in 2020 both during plague and during the final year of Brexit preparation), Shelley shows us what humans really think when species patriotism is indivisible from nationalist (and class) patriotism. Camus’ resigned (though not nihilistic) novel seems a relief compared to the archetypal toxic arrogance of Shelley’s Verney.

The Plague and The Last Man received their first screen adaptations in 1992 and 2008 respectively (the former an anti-totalitarian-government version directed by Luis Puenzo, the latter a bizarre pseudo-Darwinian apocalypse-with-mutants film directed by James Arnett). Neither lend themselves particularly to a traditional cinematic adaptation because the natural, especially in bacterial form, is unfilmable beyond its affects upon human characters, deemed worthy or unworthy. Nonhuman cinematic languages exist, but we cannot film from the perspective of the natural because we cannot occupy the consciousness of the other, the differend who is not subsumable into human signifying regimes. Special mention goes to Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) which UK television had on what seemed like perpetual repeat during 2020, and from which the UK’s health secretary Matt Hancock famously said he learned all about the importance of vaccines. But the hubris of the current UK regime/government gives Verney a run for his title as stupidest and most arrogant Englishman ever. Contagion famously ends with the genesis of the virus found in pigs whose miserable conditions see bats drop their guano into the pig food due to being driven out of natural habitats, the misery of environmental degradation and farming (intensive or otherwise, it all ends in murder) directly leading to human death, but human death being the actual drama of the piece.

Hence, second honourable mention goes to Dominion (Chris Delforce, Australia, 2018) as better ethical plague-time viewing. COVID may remain a tragedy but – in terms of numbers of deaths, of perpetual apocalypses occurring on the Earth all the time, from the slaughterhouse to the rainforest, from the vivisection laboratory to the zoo and farm – the nonhuman worlds are the victims of the utter pestilence that is anthropocentric life (just have a glance at

A living species, ours, is succeeding in excluding all the others from its niche, which is now global, how could other species eat or live in that which we cover with filth? If the soiled world is in danger it’s the result of our exclusive appropriation of things. So forget the word environment, commonly used in this context. It assumes that we humans are at the centre of a system of nature. This idea recalls a bygone era, when the Earth (how can one imagine that it used to represent us?), placed in the centre of the world, reflected our narcissism, the humanism that makes of us the exact midpoint or exact culmination of all things. No. The Earth existed without our unimaginable ancestors, could well exist today without us, will exist tomorrow, or later still, without any of our possible descendants, whereas we cannot exist without it. Thus we must indeed place things in the centre and us at the periphery, or better still, things all around and us within them like parasites. How did the change of perspective happen? By the power and for the glory of men. (Michel Serres, 2002, p. 33, emphasis in the original)

When power and glory are the privilege of man, there can be no ethics. Tarrou, Camus’ most idealistic character, remarks, ‘All I say is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims – and as far as possible one must refuse to be on the side of the pestilence’ (2013: p. 195). Hence, in order not to be the pestilence that is human life, we must enter into becomings treacherous to our species.

The Ahuman Manifesto at its heart is an activism via art. Art will save the world because art is within all the worst rhetoricism of social discourse concealed as objectivity or secret motive. Art is honest in its fictive practice and demands both an encounter with truth in a different way, and creativity in developing that encounter. It insists we think otherwise. The anthropocene never thinks outside the primacy of the human: human exceptionalism and human dominion. For all activists in our intersectional dismantling of anthropocentrism, art affords opportunities out of binaries, of either/ors where no one wins unless they are a pantomime of dominant, hegemonic, human exceptionalism. Art develops polyphonic languages, and restructures modes of apprehension. Art is the how where we have been trained to look for the what. The what spoken in the same anthropocentric language will never say anything other than something anthropocentric. So my development of the concept of the ahuman was a way to think about the kinds of languages humans develop through art when they want to divest themselves of their humanness.

Humans are also fractal collectives, and the best aspects are uniquely artistic to us (of course, nonhuman animals exhibit artistry but we will never understand what these practices mean from their experience or perspective). Activism is always artistic because it has to seek alternative voices and pathways from the common social rhetoric. Even the latter is artistry, whether sophistry or enchantment, of which neo-capitalism is a prime example. But it does not confess its magical seduction. It claims to be true. Activism claims no endgame, no ultimate goal. In its small chasing and weaving toward molecular revolutions, each activism seeks no new dominion, no replacement junta for the current. It simply burrows new escape routes toward liberty for the oppressed, the suffering, the forgotten. For feminists, antiracists, queers, disability advocates, abolitionist vegans, this is a key part of everyday life and therefore everyday speech (and often silence). Polyvocality, quiet escape routes, tactics beyond violence or submission, no new regime – just infinite trajectories. Sounds a lot like the world of cinema. Fragmentary little escape routes. Fractured delicious slivers of time. So with a short narrative, some with bursts of incoherent sections, varying languages that can be understood without having to be learned, all invoked by necessity rather than rhetoric (except, of course, for the obvious culprits). Dissipative affects leading to new ways of thinking.

The concept of the ahuman began with the creation of the word ahuman (rather than the more usual reverse order). Which has its genesis in cinema. Specifically Félix Guattari’s ‘A Cinema of Desire’ in his collection Soft Subversions.

When it is exploited by capitalist and bureaucratic socialist powers to mould the collective imaginary, cinema topples over to the side of meaning. Yet, its own effectiveness continues to depend on its pre-signifying symbolic components as well as its a-signifying ones: linkages, internal movements of visual images, colours, sounds, rhythms, gestures, speech, etc. (Guattari 1995: p. 150)

Placing the prefix a- in front of semiotics took cinema out of itself, while also giving to it the absolute cinema-ness of itself. Cinema, the language utilised by humans, is semiotic. Cinema in its pure cinesexual form is asemiotic. Cinema is desirable insofar as its semiologies escape regimes of licit interpretation, because ‘power can only be maintained insofar as it relies on the semiologies of signification’ (1995: p. 143). Trying to think activism in service of a full ecosophy, against the anthropocene and human exceptionalism, without (as is too often the case in poststructural philosophy) fetishising and co-opting various others, be they other genders, sexualities, races or species, I alighted on this ambiguous, binary resistant, infinite a– .

Yes, we are human, with an accountability for the violent history of humans. But what if we don’t want to identify with human exceptionalism, what if our activism doesn’t seek to simply raise our minoritarian identities to the level of the majoritarian? What if power, and access to it, is not what activism seeks? Liberty via escape routes, liberation through grace (what Serres calls a ‘leaving be’ of the other) – how can we make the humanness of humans just fuck off? Ahuman theory is a navigation of that. Like cinema, we are collections of fleshly molecules and (as Guattari says of silent film) ‘the signifying script had not yet taken possession of the image’ (1995: p. 151, italics in original). This viscerality is evidenced in the highly enfleshed, corporeal nature of Guattari’s Cinema of Desire: ‘Desire is constituted before the crystallisation of the body and the organs, before the division of the sexes, before the separation between the familiarised self and the social field’ (p. 153). Our cinesexual bodies in front of the screen, but after we have left the analyst’s couch far behind, are constellations of libidinality in flux with cinema’s catalysing particles. Asking why any image or film is beloved returns it to a reflective, signifying regime. We can never take possession of why we love this or that film or image: that is the central tenet of cinesexuality. So, in our becomings ahuman, we can no longer allow anthropocentrism to take possession of our subjectivity and fight for that which only benefits our designation.

This repudiation of identity-driven activism in The Ahuman Manifesto received less than positive response from some liberation groups (though no death threats or hate mail, mercifully) who still perpetuate the incremental theory of rights – where nonhumans will always come last. But this refusal of subjective recognition being central to rights is the same argument I made in my first book, Cinesexuality (Routledge, 2008). The subjectification of the spectator, like the activist, is irrelevant in the face of the catalysts that create action and desire. In this instance, potentia (after Spinoza) is both desire that drives and force that affects, an ethical and unknowable impetus. Affects are the victories of ahuman activism, not raising certain ossified subjects to the same level as old white dudes to continue the perpetration of human crimes against ecology. Some of us gave up looking for the female gaze long ago, just as looking to be recognised first in order to fight for the other is an anthropocentric mug’s game. Easier and more pleasurable to indulge in the cinesexual body-beyond-organs that cinephiles are, than attempt to use cinema as the therapist to reintegrate, through a narcissistic mirror, one’s own subjectivity.

Subjectivity, whether spectatorial or political, is a human conceit. It is a struggle of self-realisation that is premised on the repudiation of alterity. It seeks power. Power over the image. Power over the world. Or in lieu of the latter’s impossibility, power over whatever it can express power over – diminishment of the Other. But images have power over us. The cinesexual spectator is also the compassionate spectator, forsaking the power of reading, knowing, apprehending, catching, capturing, caging, using – all microcosmic structures reflecting macrocosmic anthropocentrism. The human is God, the human made by God, God given human dominion. Our maker is our anthropocentric selves. Our obedience, whether fighting for our own subjectivities or those in power, is servitude of the most repellent kind, servitude to tenets of anthropocentric annihilation of any but the social order, where both art and nature are destroyed.

Better we think of ourselves as the post-apocalyptic mutants, hybrid unnatural becomings who are out of the neo-capitalist human race (in both senses of the word). The leftovers (a relegation most humans on earth are designated anyway), the death-cultist witches, because we were never deigned worthy of living as the dominant. Let’s forge queer alliances and instead of reproducing – a human act I am still, wading through all the hate mail, waiting for a good argument defending – let’s be artists/activists and produce the unlike, the unthought. Let’s be like the most evolved and yet most despised monster, Shelley’s creature of Frankenstein: the pacifistic, (self) educated, ideas-hungry, dark-skinned, vegetarian creature patched from leftovers and part of nature, who so far exceeds his maker ethically and artistically that only this maker’s astonishing lack of compassion leads the creature to emulate his maker’s equivalent violence. Shelley’s The Last Man describes how the world is; her Frankenstein describes the world as it should be in harsh comparison with anthropocentric privilege.

I have had overwhelming support for The Ahuman Manifesto. From the very first proposal to continued daily messages of thanks and appreciation, the fractal in ahumans comes out frequently. The initial vitriol – amidst plague, Trump, the Tories, Brexit, ScoMo, Bolsonaro, Duda, Orban, MRAs and AltRights – was facilitated by what, I hope, is an awareness deep within the anthropocentric impulse that the power we have is neither deserved nor beneficial. There is no meaning to human existence that vindicates our being on earth, and our actions exacerbate this lack of vindication to the point where our desecration of ourselves and others cannot uphold Camus’ claim that men are more good than bad. Arendtian banal evil, selfishness, apathy, whatever. True villainy is so rare it is saved for cinema. We may not mean to be, we may not want to be, but what Franco Berardi (2015) calls our semiocapitalist signification of utterly everything, including death, has taken the anthropocene into a strangely non-material understanding of earth and life – and no access to a natural world is available from this perspective.

When humans shift from power to care, from spectator to submissive, our artistry rises. Yes, it is scary, because there are no answers – just like in the best films. We can care about the world in the same way we care about film – when saturated with repetitive messages we seek out the weirdo ways, the queer trails, making ourselves actively vulnerable and voraciously curious by listening. We care about the films we love, but we do not love them as objects, nor do we make demands of them. If we treated nonhuman animals and environments like that, including loving those things we loathe (after all, horror is my favourite genre and I advocate Michel Foucault’s call for a politics of discomfort), we are aware that there is always a necessary art in activism and vice versa. Carol Adams sums this politics of care in an astonishing statement.

If feelings were not objectified, we might have developed the ability to interact with the fear, to respect it and the being who is causing it, rather than try to destroy both the feeling and the being. The war on compassion has caused many people to think that it is futile to care. They are unable, imaginatively, to see how their caring will change anything. They experience a passivity inculcated by current political situations as well as by the media. They lack the imagination not to believe that something terrible might be done, but that the something terrible that is happening can be undone. The war on compassion, further, has caused people to fear that beginning to care about what happens to animals will destroy them because the knowledge is so overwhelming. They prefer not to care rather than to face the fragility, at the least, or the annihilation of the caring self, at the most extreme, that they suspect arises from caring. But caring does not make people more fragile or annihilate them. In fact, through caring, individuals not only acquire new experiences and skills that accompany these experiences, but also discover that they are part of a network that can sustain them even when caring evolves into grief for what is happening. Finally, the war on compassion has caused people to believe that they have to help humans first. (2014: p. 25)

Our caring about art may be the very way we can learn to care about the world.

Carol J. Adams,‘The War on Compassion’, in Patricia MacCormack (ed.), The Animal Catalyst: Towards Ahuman Theory. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. Pp. 15-26.
Franco Berardi, And: Phenomenology of the End. New York: Semiotext(e). 2015.
Simone De Beauvoir, Force of Circumstance, trans. Tony Judt. New York: Paragon House. 1992.
Félix Guattari, Soft Subversions, trans. David L. Sweet and Chet Weiner. New York: Semiotext(e). 1995.
Albert Camus, The Plague. Trans. Robin Buss. London: Penguin. 2013.
Michel Serres, The Natural Contract, trans. Elizabeth MacArthur & William Paulson. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. 2002.
Mary Shelley, The Last Man. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics. 2004.

© Patricia MacCormack, February 2021

About the Author

Patricia MacCormack

About the Author

Patricia MacCormack

Patricia MacCormack is an Australian-born scholar based in England, currently Professor of Continental Philosophy in English and Media at Angela Ruskin University, Cambridge. She co-edited and contributed to books including The Schizoanalysis of Cinema (2008) and Ecosophical Aesthetics: Art, Ethics and Ecology with Guattari (2018). Her best-known sole-authored works are Cinesexuality (2008) and The Ahuman Manifesto (2020).View all posts by Patricia MacCormack →